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Customs and politics a crucial factor

AS in any part of the world, understanding the local customs is a useful way to open doors in new markets. A solid grasp of the political situation and the conflicts between the Arabian Gulf States is just as important.

A report undertaken by the Perth-based Centre for International Strategic Analysis offers a bleak picture of the current situation in the Middle East.

The centre reports that the US stance on the Iraqi regime is being increasingly questioned by other Middle Eastern countries and could destablise the region.

Fears abound that calls for new elections in Palestine and “regime change” in Iraq could lead to a movement in the West, particularly the US, for all authoritarian leaders in the Arab world to be replaced.

One administration with such fears is the Saudi leadership, under Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz al Saud.

CISA CEO Lee Cordner said for a business to be successful anywhere it had to take calculated risks, identify opportunities and make the right decisions.

He said understanding the political or strategic risk could be complex and required scenario planning and trend analyses.

Mr Cordner said having people with local knowledge was an important part of this process, however, relying on local staff could bring problems.

“Local staff can be too close to local issues and players and could be unlikely to be aware of broader factors which could have a profound impact on a project,” he said.

Just as macro-level issues can provide set backs for businesses going to the region, so can a lack of knowledge of the local culture.

In the Arab world, business and family are intertwined. The Muslim religion also plays an integral part in all facets of the Arab world.

A Short Guide to doing business in the Middle East produced recently by the WA Department of Industry and Technology raises some interesting points on how business should be conducted in the region.

The report says a grasp of rituals is important when engaging with the Arab world.

For example, Arabs spend an inordinate amount of time with greetings and farewells.

“Don’t rush this and try and respond with an appropriate phrase. Shaking hands is customary,” the report says.

“Patience and flexibility are the keys. The difficulty in gaining access to Arab decision-makers, the reluctance of these key people to delegate even minor decisions, as well as the lack of regard for time-keeping ‘conspire to create stress for those used to western ways’.”

If it is a traditional meal you can expect to be seated on the floor with cushions. Limited cutlery will be available and you will eat with your right hand – the left is considered “unclean” and is not to be used.

When sitting in Arab company be careful not to show the soles of your feet, as this is considered impolite.

Status is important in the Middle East and it is important to use the correct form of address. A sheikh should be addressed as “Your Highness”. When uncertain about a leading figure, use of “Your Excellency” may suffice.

Gifts are often exchanged as a parting gesture. Avoid expressing an interest in an item in their house, as some Arabs could feel obliged to make a present of it. If they do, it is rude to refuse it.

Women risk causing offence if they are wearing clothes that display most of their legs, shoulders or arms.

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